Behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week

Ahead of New York Fashion Week, Irish models, photographers, hair stylists and make up artists reveal what it’s really like behind the scenes.
Behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week

Clíona Sweeney, session nail artist, owner of Beautique nails

Working at fashion week was a dream come true for me. Last year I was chosen to do a course with Marian Newman, who has been a fashion week fixture for years.

She’s the queen of nails; she’s worked with Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner, Lady Gaga. From thousands of applicants all over the world, I was picked for Marian’s master programme, while Sam McKnight and Val Garland did programmes in hair and makeup.

When the course finished, in early September, I got to meet Marian at a showcase in London.

I let her assistant, Jenny, know that I would be really interested in working on Marian’s team at the shows, and within a couple of weeks Jenny got in touch to ask if I could come to Paris Fashion Week with them. Marian is my idol so I was very honoured.

Cliona Sweeney said working at London Fashion week was a dream come true.
Cliona Sweeney said working at London Fashion week was a dream come true.

I had no idea what to expect; it was amazing but totally manic; very stressful and fast-paced — you would literally be on your hands and knees doing a model’s toes, trying not to trip people up.

The model could be dragged away if they were needed in hair or makeup, and you’d have to go find your model and finish her while other people were working on her.

One model arrived so late there were eight people working on her at one time. She turned up at the last minute and everyone just ran for her. She had two hairstylists, a makeup artist on each eye, and a nail technician on each limb. It was crazy.

This month I’m confirmed for London Fashion Week, and what Paris taught me is that I need to be more assertive.

One model told me “not now” when I went to do her nails, but I’m there with a job to do so I have to make sure I do it.

Follow: @beautique_nails

  • Spring/summer tip: “At Sonia Rykiel models wore a lovely khaki colour on the toes, with a neutral fingernail. That’s a very wearable look for spring/summer.”

Neil O’Keefe, fashion photographer, editor of Valstrom

I edit a fashion magazine, so for the last few seasons of London Fashion Week I’ve attended some shows as an editor, and others as a photographer.

I have several clients with a presence at the mens-and-womenswear fashion weeks, and they’ll ask me to shoot both backstage and front of house for their press materials.

Last year I added Paris Fashion Week to my schedule, working with a new brand, Siran.

New brands typically do presentations rather than catwalk shows, so Siran had hers at the famous Hotel Athénée, and I was there to shoot the space, the guests, and the clothes on the models.

I’ve been backstage at both shows and presentations, and presentations are definitely more relaxed.

Editor and photographer Neil O’Keefe says it’s high pressure for him all the way through.
Editor and photographer Neil O’Keefe says it’s high pressure for him all the way through.

The men’s shows are relatively calm too; it’s the womenswear shows that are chaotic because they have elaborate beauty looks to achieve in a short space of time.

It’s high pressure for me either way though, as the PR team needs my images really quickly. For Paris Fashion Week I’m on the Eurostar at 7am, in Paris for 9, then I’m setting up the space and recording everything happening behind the scenes.

We have six models presenting the clothes, changing looks every hour, and once the presentation starts I’m photographing guests and capturing the atmosphere.

At the spring/summer presentation in October I photographed Kim Kardashian, just hours before she was robbed!

When someone like that walks into a room it’s crazy; she’s the most famous woman in the world so the team, Siran’s clients – everyone gets really excited and there’s a bit of a frenzy.

She’s surrounded by people taking photos and I’ll be trying to get my shot.

I’ll get my images onto the Mac at about 4 o’clock; edit them as quickly as possible, then get the train back to London that evening. It’s intense!

Follow: @nokstudio

  • Spring/summer tip: “Realism and a 90s grunge vibe is starting to return to fashion photography. There’s a lot less retouching in the new season campaigns.”

Lesley Keane, senior artist at MAC Cosmetics

There’s generally one senior artist for MAC in every country, and we come together to work at all the fashion weeks.

New York, Milan, Paris, London, plus men’s shows and couture; I’ve been doing them for the last 15 years, travelling for weeks at a time.

My schedule is split between doing test looks for the shows — when we go to the designer’s studio ahead of the show to work out the look — and doing the actual shows.

With bigger shows you’ve a lot more time to work; about half an hour for your first model, which is luxurious, but depending on casting you could have a model running in the door minutes before the show, so that’s when it’s very stressful.

Lesley Keane says any celebrity element can add stress.
Lesley Keane says any celebrity element can add stress.

The makeup might be very complicated, or we may be using a product that’s out of stock, so the whole team is sharing three lipsticks!

You’re working with hairdressers, nail technicians and stylists who are all trying to get their jobs done, so it can be bit of a power struggle.

We have a bus that takes us from one show to the next, but it’s not always easy to get out of there. In Paris I got caught up in the famous scuffle that engulfed Kim Kardashian coming out of Balmain.

I was thrown around the place and missed the call time for my next show! Wherever there’s a celebrity element it definitely adds additional stress.

My most memorable show was a Phillip Tracey show where the models were wearing Michael Jackson’s original costumes. We arrived to find the ‘Thriller’ costume, the ‘Beat It’ costume, all just hanging there!

Lady Gaga was there, and Topolino was doing makeup — he’s a total icon, and doesn’t generally do shows, so that in itself was huge. It was a surreal but amazing experience.

Follow: @lesleykeanemac

  • Spring/summer tip: “We’re seeing a switch from anything sharp and graphic to something much more diffused. Think soft, brushed out brows and smudged lips.”

Pamela Morrissey, creative director of Sobe Brown

Sobe Brown is a flagship salon for Bumble & Bumble, and we do regular London Fashion Week training with them on the off-chance we might be called to join the official team.

In September I made Tina Outen’s team — she’s one of the worlds most in demand session stylists, so it was my dream to work with her, and I’m back on her team this month.

First timers usually do one show, but I got to do five, including Paul Smith and Antonio Berardi.

To go from never having done fashion week to doing five shows was intense, but your adrenaline kicks in and you get in the zone — you’re using everything you’ve ever learned, all your senses and timing skills.

Pamela Morrissey, left, with Tina Outen. Pamela dreamed of working with Tina, one of the world’s most in-demand session stylists, and is working with her this month.
Pamela Morrissey, left, with Tina Outen. Pamela dreamed of working with Tina, one of the world’s most in-demand session stylists, and is working with her this month.

It’s stressful, but it’s a lovely kind of stress. I think what’s required for fashion week is team spirit. You have to be fantastic at taking direction, and willing to pitch in. It’s character building — no course in the world could prepare you for it.

I was up at 5.30 each morning, on location for 7am. Tina would talk us through each look with exact instructions, down to how much product to use and how many strands of hair should go over each shoulder.

There’s nothing left to chance and you have to be on the ball and take it all in. There’s no time for “I didn’t understand” or “Can you explain that again?”

My final show was Antonio Berardi and when it was over, the Italians in the audience went crazy! It was quite a moment, and I actually got teary.

I’d only ever seen something like that from the front, and there I was, backstage at Antonio Berardi. I had to pinch myself!

I don’t know if I’d fancy being in that world all the time, but it’s magical to get a glimpse into it.

Follow: @sobebrown

  • Spring/summer tip: Hair is going natural this season; it’s all about condition. At Antonio Berardi, girls were styled to look like they’d gone to bed with wet hair!

Aoibhinn Lane, model represented by Lockdown, Ireland, and MiLK, UK.

In sixth year, my agency arranged a casting for me with MiLK, and after my Leaving Cert I was offered the chance to go to London. I wasn’t sure at first, but eventually I decided to go for it.

I arrived mid-August, just in time for fashion week castings.

I went from casting to casting in the sweltering heat for two weeks, and ended up getting five shows, including Aquascutum and Emilio de la Morena.

Models only find out the night before what shows they’ve booked.

You’re checking emails until midnight in case a last minute confirmation comes in, sometimes for a 6am call time.

Model Aoibhinn Lane. Photo Neil O’Keefe
Model Aoibhinn Lane. Photo Neil O’Keefe

Once you get to the show, there’s fittings, hair and makeup, rehearsal, and lots of waiting around! Then when the time comes, you strut your stuff. Or stand still for two hours if it’s a presentation.

Every show I worked had a very chilled atmosphere, with photographers getting behind the scenes shots and asking you to pull silly faces. At one we were given a glass of champagne to take the edge off.

People ask me, how do you not freak out before or during a show, but you just have to stay cool, calm and collected. Every time a show finishes I want to do it all over again!

Some girls do three shows a day, which I would probably find tough. One day I had two and I was frantic!

I finished one, rushed to the next one, and myself and two other girls were last to sit down for hair and makeup. We were ready and waiting… and waiting, and waiting!

Until finally we found out they had overbooked models and were short three outfits. So we sat there and took our makeup off while everyone else enjoyed the show.

It was my last show that week, so it wasn’t the greatest way to end it, but it was an amazing experience and I can’t wait for the next one!

Follow: @aoibhinnlane

  • Spring/summer tip: “Spring/summer classics return.”

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up